- When possible, use a tripod to stabilize your camera.
- If you don't have a camera remote, get one like the Alpine Labs Spark pictured above.
- Use your camera settings to your advantage to get sharp photos.
Tell me if this sounds familiar...
You spend countless hours learning about photography and practicing taking photos.
And though you occasionally get results that make you think, "Wow, I did that!" more often than not, you're left thinking, "Geez, that's not as good as I hoped."
We've all been there, even some of the greatest photographers to ever live.
But that doesn't mean that you should be complacent and just accept that some of your images won't be up to snuff.
There's plenty that we can all do to give our images a bit of a boost, but rather than trying to list them all and completely overwhelming you, I've picked out four things that you can do right now, today, that will have a positive impact on the photos you create.
Focus on Lighting
Obviously, the photos you take need to have good lighting to be successful. That's the easy part.
The hard part is ensuring that you get the lighting as close to ideal in-camera as you can get.
Your camera's light meter is designed to "read" the light in a scene and strive to make it neutral gray. Though this process works well in many instances, sometimes your light meter can get it wrong.
For example, if you're photographing a wintery landscape like the one above that has a lot of white, the light meter will think that the scene is extremely bright and try to darken the image. The result is snow that looks gray instead of white.
Conversely, if you're photographing a very dark scene, the camera's meter will read it as being too dark and try to lighten it, again, making everything look gray.
To get around this problem, you can use your camera's exposure compensation feature.
Essentially, exposure compensation allows you to manually override what the camera's meter thinks should happen. So, if the image is too dark, you can dial in positive exposure compensation to brighten the image. If it's too bright, you can dial in negative exposure compensation to darken it.
If you aren't sure how to use exposure compensation, check out the video above by Mike Browne.
Make It Sharp
You can compose a gorgeous photo and have the exposure settings just right, but if the photo isn't sharp, you'll have an unsuccessful photo on your hands.
Many have tried - and failed - to correct a photo that isn't sharp by trying to sharpen it in post-processing. However, this is going about the issue in the wrong way.
Instead, sharpness is something that needs to be achieved in-camera when you take the photo.
The question is, how do you do that?
The simple answer is this: set yourself up for success.
By that I mean a couple of things:
The first two are pretty self-explanatory - a tripod and a camera remote help to prevent camera shake that results from holding that camera while you shoot or manually pressing the shutter button.
By removing those factors, you immediately have a greater ability to get a sharper photo.
Essential Camera Settings for Sharpness - Aperture
But just as important is to understand how your camera settings might impact sharpness.
For example, the aperture you use can impact the sharpness of the shot.
Though it's common to use a very large aperture like f/2 for portraits and a very small aperture like f/22 for landscapes (as seen below), using an aperture at one extreme or the other misses the sweet spot of the lens - the aperture range that results in the best sharpness.
Though the sweet spot differs from one lens to the next, it's usually somewhere in the mid-range of apertures, around f/8 or f/11. Learn how to find your camera's sweet spot if you don't already know how.
Additionally, the aperture helps determine the depth of field, which, if small enough, could render parts of your subject blurry. Again, if you aren't sure how depth of field works, learn what it is and how to use it to your advantage.
Essential Camera Settings for Sharpness - Shutter Speed
Shutter speed influences the sharpness of your images because if you choose a shutter speed that's too slow to photograph a moving subject, that subject will be blurry, as seen above.
Naturally, to rectify this, you need to use a faster shutter speed.
What's more, if you're shooting without a tripod and you're holding your camera, you have to be aware of the minimum shutter speed you can use with your lens.
For example, if you're using a 24mm lens on a full frame camera, the slowest shutter speed you can use is about 1/24 seconds - the inverse of the shutter speed.
If you're using a crop sensor camera, though, you have to calculate the crop factor to determine the slowest shutter speed you can use.
In that case, if you're shooting with a Nikon APS-C format camera with a 1.5x crop factor, the same 24mm lens would require a shutter speed no slower than about 1/36 seconds.
The moral of the story here is that the aperture and shutter speed aren't just for determining the level of exposure in your shot - they also have an impact on the sharpness of your photos.
For more tips on how to get sharper images when handholding your camera, watch the video above by Matt Granger.
Take It Easy on Post-Processing
One thing I notice more than anything in many photos taken be beginners is that they tend to be overprocessed.
Processing your images should be a process of fine-tuning, not a process of completely changing the image.
There are some caveats, like converting a color image to black and white, but by and large, processing should first focus on making small adjustments to exposure, contrast, and color temperature above all else.
The key word here is "small."
If you can get things right (or as close to right) in-camera, you won't have to worry as much about making significant changes in post-processing.
Here's a prime example:
Let's say you have a photo that just doesn't have the detail you want in the highlighted or shadowed areas.
So, you use post-processing to bring down those highlights and bring up the shadows to try and recover some of that detail.
The problem is that by doing so, you end up with an image that looks processed, especially if the shadows and highlights look a little too perfect. Get some insight into why overprocessing is a bad thing in the video above by Jared Polin.
You can get around this by shooting at the right time of day to get the look you want.
If you want very even tones with minimal shadows and highlights, go out and shoot when it's overcast or during Golden Hour. If you want tons of contrast, shoot during mid-day.
Be Careful How Much You Crop
A final mistake to watch out for is getting out of hand with resizing and cropping the image.
Every time you resize the image, you impact the pixels contained therein. As a result, you never want to resize an image multiple times because the more you do it, the more the quality of the image will degrade.
What's more, you want to avoid cropping in order to create an image with a close-up look.
This results in an image that, again, has degraded image quality that doesn't align with our goal to have better-looking photos.
Instead, if you want a tight frame on a subject for a close-up look, do the work in the field by moving physically closer to the subject or using a longer focal length lens to fill the frame with the subject.
Wrapping It Up
Though this isn't an exhaustive list of everything you can do to create better photos, it is certainly a step in the right direction when it comes to the technical things you can do to improve your images.
When it comes down to it, what really matters is striving to get as much right in-camera as you possibly can.
As we've seen here, getting the lighting and sharpness nailed down in camera, and taking it easy with post-processing and cropping will go a long way in helping your photos have the type of impact you want.
Take a look at the image above, and you can see these tips in action. It's sharp, the exposure is great, it looks natural, and the cropping is spot on.
That's the power of using these simple tricks!